#ToniMorrison Will Always Be #AllTheThings

And I am all the things I have ever loved: scuppernong wine, cool baptisms in silent water, dream books and number playing. – Toni Morrison

I was the only (dumb) white guy in the class. Maye the only wannabe writer, too. 1999. African American Literature at Elon College. I thought I was cool being the minority. We had to read Jazz by Toni Morrison. From the very first line…Sth, I know that woman…I was transported, and changed. It was, and still is, to this day, unlike any other novel I have ever experienced. It was wholly unique, a novel written like music…a looping chorus of tortured souls, a deepdown, spooky jazz song about people and places I had never thought about before…voices I had never heard and feelings I would never forget.

It was also composed in a way that broke every rule of writing. Jazz is the reason all of my novels have roving, shifting, intertwined POV’s.

Morrison shunned the idea of writing something universal…but in her specificity and focus on the African-American reality, she tapped into the timelessness of the human experience. The human frailty and strength she evoked is universal.

Margalit Fox of The New York Time’s wrote: “Ms. Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”

As I grew older, and I sampled more and more of Morrison’s playlist, I grew to love her even more. I was in awe of her ability to plumb the depths of place and time channeling the hopes and fears of all of the marginalized. Her A Mercy haunted me like the transcribed dream of every sad soul dragged kicking and screaming to the New World.

Image result for toni morrison young

I loved to hear her talk, her voice like a cool babbling brook gossiping about the world it snaked through, and read her thoughts on the craft. I basked in her wisdom.

If you don’t see the book you want to read out there, go write it. Damn it.

I loved her thoughts on freedom.

Once you’re free, you gotta free somebody else…otherwise what’s the point?

Her thoughts on leadership were no different…set the bar high, and when you get some real power, use it to empower others.

I was lucky enough to see her speak and meet her in person at the Free Library of Philadelphia with my wife in 2015. She was everything I knew she always was.

Toni Morrison is, and always will be, all the things I have ever loved.

She is the Greatest American Novelist, and she has left behind a legacy of words and wisdom we are hardly worthy of. She is the best of us. She is all of us.

I’d like to imagine that a thousand years from now when all musical recordings are lost, the internet is unplugged, and the only clouds are those in the sky…someone might wonder, what was jazz?

The only answer will be her book, whose opening paragraph was sung like this…

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”

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Written by D. H. Schleicher, inspired by the life of Toni Morrison

Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

I’ve Got a Part You Will Kill in La La Land

la-la-land-mia

“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.

Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.

Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.

Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show.   Continue reading

And Now It’s Dark with Amy Winehouse

Amy

In David Lynch’s seminal classic Blue Velvet (which thematically shares with Amy a tortured dark-haired chanteuse manipulated by her own internal demons as well as the vile men in her life), the line, “And now it’s dark…” is used as a secret password into a nightmarish world lurking underneath white picket fences.  Later in Mulholland Drive, Lynch meditated more deeply on the tortured female soul, the flickering white lights after a failed actress’ suicide eerily like the flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras.  Asif Kapadia briefly muses on the cameras that blinded Amy Winehouse’s soul as well, but his humanist documentary is so much more than just a portrayal of the archetypal tortured artist.  Amy was a tortured soul long before the celebrity-obsessed cameras devoured what little was left of her.

Watching her meteoric rise and subsequent crash and burn play out in the media as it happened, I had this notion of Amy Winehouse as some meta-dramatist (with a killer voice, sassy attitude and old-school jazzy vibe) who was hell-bent on living the stereotypical hard-drinking lifestyle of a musician.  I baked in my head a stale soufflé of her as someone who wanted to drink because she thought it brought out the best in her art, because she thought that’s the way a real jazz musician had to behave, and that harder drugs were just a doorway to another level.  I couldn’t have been more wrong about poor Amy, who in her own words and rare archival footage, makes it clear she was most brilliant when she was sober and wrestling her demons through music, and that all the drinking and drugs were self-medication for when she couldn’t find her voice, not necessarily her literal voice, but her hard-fought catharsis in pouring out her soul through songs that filled the voids that had existed in her life since childhood (which was not so much Grand Guignol, but ordinarily sad in its universal familial strife).  I had no idea her lyrics (always noted for their cunning wordplay that lent itself so beautifully to her signature annunciation, lilt, rises and attitude) were so literally literal.  They often deceived a listener into thinking they were metaphors, but they weren’t.  She was not one to mince words.  Her albums were her autobiographies.  And they painted a tragic tale. Continue reading

My Favorite Novels

Mantlepiece Collection

Maybe it was reading The Telegraph’s list of greatest novels of the 21st Century (we’re only 15 years in, people!) that I found to be absolute bollocks…

Or maybe it was looking back on a post I wrote in this blog’s infancy (pre-spin, when it was just davethenovelist) where I listed what I proclaimed to be the Greatest Novels of All Time (which of course meant the best novels I had read up to that point in my life) and realizing how much I had read in the seven years since then and thinking about what that list would look like today.  How many new entries?  What would still make the cut, and would the passage of time have colored my opinion on significance, fondness and ordering?

Or maybe it was watching “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time on TV tonight that got me thinking…damn, The English Patient…Ondaatje…that has to be one of the greatest novels ever, right?  (Spoiler alert: IT IS!)

At any rate…I’m keeping this one simple and asking you to share your own lists. 

What are your favorite novels?

Here are mine: Continue reading

New Orleans in November

What better way to cure a Hurricane Sandy hangover and escape a bitter Nor’easter than by flying down to the place that knows bad storms the best…New Orleans!  By pure happenstance (my little sojourn was planned about a month or so ago), I was flying down to the Big Easy for some rest and relaxation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and just before a Nor’easter battered my home state of New Jersey.  It was also Election Day – more on that later.  I had chosen New Orleans as my destination on a whim.  I had never been there (alas, an aborted attempt to go my junior year of college still haunted me) and I wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere a little more exciting…somewhere completely unlike my normal R&R spots in Upstate New York.  A morbid thought also burrowed its way into my mind, as New Orleans is one of the few places in the US that at some point in my lifetime might no longer exist.  Little did I know that much of the Jersey Shore and parts of NYC would fall into this category as well just a week before my trip.

Sunny 70-degree weather, cool nights and leisurely bustling but not overcrowded streets greeted me as I touched down in Louisiana.  Good food, good drinks, good people and a city like no other (this has to be the most laid-back city in the United States) – it was just what the doctor ordered. 

Below is the patented Schleicher Spin rundown of my time in NOLA. Continue reading

The Hook Brings Them Back

The calm between the storms: And just where do they plan on fitting another foot of snow?

They sure do like to rush the sequels these days.  Just barely 72 hours after Snowmageddon dumped 20 inches or more over most of the Mid Atlantic, the sequel was rushed into production and now we have Snowmageddon 2:  The Sleetpocalypse, arriving mid-week no less and snowing-in the same area (and then some) once again.   As Dickens would say…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

But it seemed the perfect cabin-fever brew to stir up some inspired work on that novel…you know…the one I’ve been babbling about since — For the Love of Pete — April of 2008!  Though I have much of the outlining and research completed and even drafted a very rough first chapter, one thing I have been wrestling with is crafting that perfect, killer opening line.  They say you have to grab a reader’s attention instantly, and if you don’t hook them with the opening, then they are less likely to come back.   I decided to test that theory and thought what better way to procrastinate than to hit my bookshelves and crack open some of my favorite novels and current reads to see how the masters of their craft hooked readers with that opening line.  

I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to do the same and leave some of you favorite (or worst) opening lines to novels (or screenplays) in the comment form! 

Here are some of my findings: Continue reading

A Review of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Orphans of the Storm

In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy we see life through the eyes of people physically and emotionally abandoned, orphans with names like Lina, Florens, Jacob, Rebekkah and Sorrow.  The storm is the clashing of cultures in pre-Revolutionary War America where the laws are not yet defined, everyone and everything is for sale, and all are threatened with annihilation by God, the environment or each other.  Europeans looking for a promised land of unending wealth or escape, Natives living through an apocalypse, indentured servants and slaves from Europe and Africa bound to barbaric institutions are all brought to a slow, simmering boil in the torrid fog rolling in over Mary-Land and Virginia…colonies ironically named for women but that are unmerciful and cruel to those females who come to their shores. Continue reading